A kick in the stereotype - a pot-dealing soccer mom

Showtime takes a gritty look inside suburbia

Television

August 07, 2005|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

WEEDS, WHICH PREMIERES TONIGHT, IS MEANT TO SHOCK — Hypocrisy in the suburbs is hardly a new theme for television, but seldom has it been explored with as much exuberance and intelligence as it is in the new Showtime comedy series Weeds, starring Mary-Louise Parker as a pot-dealing, single mom in the upscale community of Agrestic, Calif.

Weeds, which premieres tonight, is meant to shock - even by the standards of premium cable - with a salty blend of four-letter words, graphic sex and a soccer mom who sells marijuana at her 8-year-old son's games. But what's more likely to make viewers uneasy is the way in which the series tramples on the expectations and mores that frequently accompany middle-class American life.

As Nancy Botwin (Parker) makes daily rounds between all-white PTA meetings in Agrestic and drug buys from an African-American household in an urban neighborhood, mainstream beliefs about race, class, community and morality are unobtrusively, but undeniably, called into question. By deconstructing conventional notions of family and motherhood and savaging contemporary notions of success, Weeds joins (thematically, at least) ABC's Desperate Housewives and HBO's The Sopranos in offering harsh critiques of the American Dream, suburban style, circa 2005.

That's not to say that Weeds - a comedy built around the hot-potato topic of marijuana and its use - will become a cultural touchstone like its predecessors (or even a hit). Nonetheless, in its years of running a distant second-best to HBO, Showtime hasn't offered a show that stretches this high - and with such confidence.

The opening sequence, filled with images of contemporary suburban life and set to a 1960s folk song, cleverly encourages comparisons between Agrestic and the stultifying conformity of the Eisenhower era. As an overhead camera focuses on manicured lawns, sun-splashed streets and red tile roofs, a female voice sings Little Boxes, the 1961 Maliva Reynolds tune: "Little boxes on the hillside, little boxes made of ticky tacky. Little boxes, little boxes, little boxes all the same."

Viewers meet Botwin as she stands at the podium of an elementary-school PTA meeting wearing a tense smile. As chair of the Healthy Children's Committee, she urges that soft drinks be removed from school vending machines and replaced with bottled water and naturally sweetened fruit juices.

Her fellow members are barely listening. They are gauging how Botwin is handling the death of her husband, who dropped dead while jogging. One concludes that she seems "pretty well fixed." Another says she was left with nothing, adding: "I heard they spent it all on the new kitchen, which looks fabulous."

A third wonders whether the youthful Botwin has had Botox treatments in hopes of finding a new man to support her, and her two boys, and a live-in housekeeper.

Cut from Stepfordian snipers to a kitchen table with three African-American family members bagging marijuana and joking with Botwin as she holds out her "knockoff" purse for inspection. This is a very different, relaxed Botwin, and the smile looks genuine.

Botwin claims the purse is flawless, but Heylia James (Tony Patano), the no-nonsense head of the family, instantly spots some bad stitching and jokingly calls Botwin a "dumb, white [expletive]."

As her bags of pot are being weighed, Botwin kibitzes right back with a sarcastic remark about "black people" stealing.

"White people steal," insists one of the baggers, Conrad Shepard (Romany Malco). "Enron. WorldCom. They be stealing billions of dollars."

"Maybe black people need to start stealing bigger," Botwin counters before rushing off to take her 8-year-old to a grief-counseling appointment.

Before the pilot episode ends, Botwin has sold an ounce of pot to a high-school kid, who in turn sells to elementary-school children. She also supplies marijuana to a city councilman (Kevin Nealon), and tries (not very hard) to keep her 15-year-old from sleeping with his girlfriend. The triumph of Parker's performance - just like that of James Gandolfini's depiction of Tony Soprano - is that she makes one care about Botwin in spite of all her flaws.

"I wanted to do a show that focused on the gray areas of human nature and life, as opposed to the standard black-and-white, good guys/bad guys stories that we see all the time on television," said Jenji Kohan, the 36-year-old creator of the series. "Since I was going to make her a drug dealer, which is sort of a sinister title, I wanted this person to be sympathetic and have a need to be doing this. So, I killed her husband, and made her a widow with basically no skill set."

Parker, who won Emmy and Golden Globe awards for her performance in HBO's Angels in America, doesn't defend Botwin: "There is no perfect relationship or Garden of Eden or perfect anything. In our suburbia, there's a woman who may seem perfect, but she's a drug dealer. If you would go into each of these houses, you'd find some deep secret in every one of them."

The notion of unpleasant secrets lurking behind idyllic-looking facades of suburban homes is not new, of course, to anyone who watched Desperate Housewives last season - or for that matter, anyone who followed NBC's Peyton Place 31 years ago.

But even in the deepest, darkest folds of the underbellies of Wisteria Lane and Peyton Place, there were no moms secretly selling drugs even as they publicly fought to save their children from sugar at the soft-drink machine.

Weeds

When: Tonight at 11

Where: Showtime

In brief: A provocative drama starring Mary-Louise Parker as a pot-selling soccer mom

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